By Casey Adams
First, let’s be clear: Mei Ratz is a skilled, trained, remarkable photographer. Browse her breathtaking work from her life across the country at http://mratz.com. She also defines her approach to photography very similarly to the way many of us endeavor to capture our vacations:
“I’m definitely a wing-it photographer. I shoot mostly with my phone. I think it’s mostly for me the narrative of shooting—of ‘we’re experiencing this place,’” she explained.
Mei grew up in Lander, and since her relatively recent return, she has discovered Wind River Country with new eyes. “It’s the hardest place to get to but worth it when you get here.”
So when you do make the point of arriving in Wind River Country, how do you capture this sense of place, the people and their stories? Mei is all over this challenge.
Put down the heavy camera bag
“As soon as you pull the big camera out, everybody gets nervous and you’ve lost the moment,” Mei concedes. On top of that, if you’re traveling—and enjoying the outdoors of Wind River Country, it’s a lot of literal weight on your shoulders. Mei’s solution? Use your phone more. She uses the camera app everyone’s phone is equipped with, edits with VSCO. More:
- Again, it’s tiny.
- You can shoot at any moment and any time.
- There’s little risk in hand it over to a kid to see what they’re seeing.
- You can get way, way closer to your subjects.
- Yes, selfies: “There’s so much empowerment in taking selfies, especially inside an experience … That is so important to document. You chose to go to that space, why not shoot yourself in that space?”
Pick up Instagram and hashtagging
“I love Instagram because one, I’m a photographer and two, the organizational function of hashtags,” Mei explained (see http://instagram.com/meiratz). She walked us through the steps of compiling and sharing your vacation photos for folks back home:
- Create a hashtag for your vacation (also use #windrivercountry)
- Tell anyone interested in your Wyoming travels about your hashtag
- Use your hashtag on photos you post from your travels
- Use the hashtag to share your experience during and following your return. Aunt Jill will be so happy to know how your trip went, and you don’t have to feel bad when you never get around to printing images for her.
- If you do want to print some, use the hashtag to find and print shots.
Carry that phone to these places
“Every spot in Lander has a story,” said Mei. It’s just a matter of showing up, asking questions, experiencing the adventure, and sharing the space. The destinations she suggests have character on their own, and even more when you start talking to the regulars. “And everybody’s a regular somewhere here because there’s not enough places!” she laughed.
- The Lander Bar has really good light, but only in the afternoon. You’re on vacation, so saddle up to the bar and bask in that lovely light. “It’s easier to wing it when the light is good,” Mei advises. You’ll wow your followers with the incredible, authentic Wyoming feel these images will give them.
- The Gannett Grill (which is connected to the Lander Bar if you have kids) has walls covered in community artifacts. While you munch on a local-beef burger, turn your gaze upward and across the walls, and take the time to capture more than your meal for Instagram.
- The Lander Rodeo grounds offers both “consistently the best sunset I’ve ever seen,” and “Wyoming classic rodeo grounds.” Local photographer’s tip: look for the built-in reflector in the silver tube on the grounds for your portraits.
- In the fall, head to the aspen groves at the mouth of Sinks Canyon; they’re the best Mei has ever shot in.
- The view from the top of the switchbacks in Sinks Canyon is one of Mei’s favorites. It’s accessible, stunning, and the light works for you as the sun sets into the canyon. This spot is also the trailhead for a gentle hike where you can get out, stretch your legs, and sample the vast wilderness Wind River Country affords.
- Cowfish in downtown Lander has a brilliant yellow wall with reflected light from the nearby water tower. Mei finishes every family shoot there.
- The town of Shoshoni is home to a building-sized mural of Geronimo. “It’s always worth stopping,” Mei raved. Look for the tiny poem written on Geronimo’s face, and then stroll down the street to the tiny, “adorable” jail and train tracks to set up some dramatic portraits of your travel buddies.
- The coal train that rolls down Wind River Canyon actually goes under Boysen Dam, making for an incredible photography opportunity. Look for the camping area near the tunnel’s 45-degree entrance. “It is very, very, very, very, super illegal to go into a train tunnel, just so everybody is clear,” said Mei, “But you can look at the tunnel from the outside.”
- The dock on the Boysen Marina is stunning. It makes the reservoir look like an ocean and is the ideal setting for a romantic photo shoot.
Set up portraits? Are you kidding?
“There is a lot of trepidation about taking photos because people think they’re not photogenic, which is a social lie,” Mei stated. “People look their best when they’re calm and when they think they look their best.”
- In your photographer role, show now fear. You can calm the situation. Shooting with your phone will help.
- Encourage your subjects and give positive feedback.
- Make sure your travel buddies aren’t pulling their faces back; instead, teach them to pull their chins out, then down just a little.
- Get in the photo. Do as Mei does and wedge your phone into the car tire treads, set the timer, and run!
- Arms around waists, not shoulders (nobody wants to look like a little kid)
- The tighter everyone can get, the better (if you squeeze waists, everyone looks thinner)
- Feel the love and the discomfort, react, laugh, remember the neck/chin tip.
“I always shoot the experience,” Mei explained. “Whatever they are looking at is less important than the look on their faces.”
- Find a way to get in their way without being fully in their way so you can capture the reaction as it’s happening. Stand in the way and show no fear. Remember, everybody loves to see photos of themselves.
- Keep the narrative going: ask your travel buddy questions about what they’re experiencing and capture the answers with your camera.
- Kids are easy: Throw stuff, make stuff happen, have them jump off things—create the reaction.
“To be braver than you think you are while shooting will always get you the better shot,” Mei advises.
- Capture what it feels like to do the activity, for example, the wheel and the dust of mountain biking or fingers gripping rock while climbing.
- Get closer.
- There is no shame in asking to do it again—tell you friend to walk the bike back up the hill and ride it again! “Asking to see it one more time just tells the person what they did was really cool and it’s important and you are validating them, which then makes your shot better.”
“You’re using the tool to show the activity: what we’re doing, this crazy feeling of how it smells and how it looks and how it tastes and what we’re doing and what I’m scared of and what I conquered,” Mei said.